Reading Directions for Thoreau’s Walden

Walter Harding was the secretary of the Thoreau Society when he wrote the short article for The Massachusetts Review titled “Five Ways of Looking at Walden.” The article opens with a narrative description of the types of people who read Thoreau and attended the Society meetings, and these were, in short, anyone and everyone, folks from all walks of life. And why was this diverse group of individuals interested in Thoreau? Harding says, “It is very rarely that two give the same reason. They are interested in his natural history, his politics, his economics, his prose style, his anarchism, his theology, and so on…Walden is read, not for just one reason, but for many” (149). Harding then describes his five types of readings of Walden, variations that might explain the diversity of its readers, and that serve as a useful introduction to Walden as argument.

The first of Harding’s five readings of Walden is as a nature book: “To most people, I suppose, Walden is a nature book. Certainly back at the time of its appearance it was almost universally considered to be a book about natural history, and some of Thoreau’s contemporaries were annoyed that he allowed anything but nature to have a part in the book” (149-150). Publishers over the years have capitalized on this reading, for most editions show some drawing or picture of the pond or environs, suggesting a bucolic topic. The 2004 Beacon Press edition I’m reading now is covered with a black and white photo titled, “Fallen leaves through the Corner Spring Woods” (October 15, 1899). There’s no hint in the photo of a cabin, of what it might take to build one, or why.

The second of Harding’s five readings suggests that some folks read Walden for its value of self-dependent optimism. Says Harding, “A second appeal of Walden is as a do-it-yourself guide to the simple life. I think it highly significant that the first real surge of interest in Thoreau in the twentieth century came during the depression years of the nineteen-thirties when large masses of people, indeed almost all of us, were required willy-nilly by the press of circumstances to adopt the simple life. We had no choice in the matter, but Thoreau was one of the very few authors who not only made this simple life bearable, he even made it appealing” (151). This economic season of Walden, and reason to read it, may again be upon us.

Harding’s third reading might appeal to today’s fans of sarcasm, for nothing so deflates and simplifies as humor. Harding says, “A third facet of Walden is its satirical criticism of modern life and living. Strangely enough this is one side of Thoreau that is sometimes misunderstood by the reader. Some take everything Thoreau says literally and seriously, ignoring the fact that the book’s epigraph reads: ‘I do not propose to write an ode to dejection, but to brag as lustily as chanticleer in the morning, standing on his roost, if only to wake my neighbors up’” (154-155) [Harding refers to this passage as “the book’s epigraph”; it’s found on page 79 of the Beacon Press edition, in the “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For” chapter]. But Thoreau’s humor is evident from the beginning of his text: “I should not talk so much about myself if there were any body [sic] else whom I knew so well” (2). We may know folks who talk of no one else but others, as if they don’t know themselves at all, or as if they themselves present the poorest topic they know, or as if there exists no topic other than people, no ideas or things.

Harding’s fourth reading comes equipped with a seemingly highfalutin word that upon examination might be found to aptly describe Thoreau’s style: “A fourth approach to Walden is the belletristic. From a purely technical standpoint, Walden is good writing and is worth examining as such” (156). This reading suggests textual analysis, and focuses on structure and style, unity, on the how of what is said. Harding points out that the central unifying trope of Walden is the year, the seasons (157), which leads to a reading of the whole as “the symbol of rebirth and renewal” (160). But with this aesthetic reading, the reader focuses on devices such as the order of the chapters, paragraphing, sentence structure, and diction, and figures of speech (without which Walden would be only a couple of pages long, if that).

This is the reading I find most interesting, the rhetorical analysis, for which Walden provides plenty of fuel. Harding says that he “once took a list of more than fifty different types of figures of speech [within Walden] – allusions, metaphors, rhetorical questions, alliteration, analogy, puns, epanorthosis, parables, similes, meiosis, anti-strophe, oxymoron, epizeuxis, anaphora, litotes, anti-thesis, portmanteau words, metonomy, contrast, personification, epistrophe, synecdoche, irony, apostrophe, hyperbole, and so on, and with no difficulty at all found excellent examples of each one in Walden. There is hardly a trick of the trade that Thoreau does not make use of” (158-159).

Harding’s final reading, if we’ve any spirit left after that last passage, is as a spiritual book.

And there are other readings of Walden, perhaps as many as there are readers. Here is a reference to Harding’s article, which can be found using the JSTOR electronic database, accessible via library:

Five Ways of Looking at Walden
Walter Harding
The Massachusetts Review, Vol. 4, No. 1 (Autumn, 1962), pp. 149-162
Published by: The Massachusetts Review, Inc.
Stable URL:

Thoreau, Henry David. Walden. 1854. Boston: Beacon Press, July 15, 2004 [Introduction and Annotations by Bill McKibben].